BRIGHTON, MICH. — By opening a new test facility and corrugated extrusion line, Eagle-Picher Industries Inc.'s Fluid Systems Division has landed on General Motors Corp.'s list of approved suppliers.
The fledgling division, a relative newcomer to a fragmented market for nylon fuel and vapor lines, is trying to break through those competitive ranks and become a larger player.
Doing so has meant opening one of the few complete test facilities in North America, said Scott Maly, general manager of Eagle-Picher's Fluid Systems Division. The test site was launched in mid-April.
A competitor, Bundy Corp. of Warren Mich., also has certified laboratory facilities at its headquarters.
GM added the Eagle-Picher division to its supplier lists after verifying that the facility meets its test standards. Currently, few of the division's products appear on GM vehicles.
The division also started a $250,000 corrugated extrusion line in January. The new equipment will help the division make flexible nylon 12 vapor lines. Corrugated tubing has captured at least a quarter of new North American vapor line business, Maly said.
In the fourth quarter of this year, the supplier plans to add a third extrusion line to make monolayer nylon tubing. That would free the plant's multilayer coextrusion equipment to produce five-layer fuel and vapor lines. Multilayer fuel and vapor lines, which protect against gas permeation, should dominate the industry in several years, Maly said.
Operating since March 1996 from a 27,200-square-foot warehouse in Brighton, Eagle-Picher gradually has filled existing space and searched out future opportunities, Maly said. Already, the company makes more than 6 million fuel and vapor lines annually.
That is still a trickle compared with fuel line makers such as ITT Automotive in Auburn Hills, Mich.; Bundy; and Pilot Industries Inc. of Dexter, Mich.
``At first, we brought on much-larger manufacturing capacity than was really needed,'' Maly said in an interview at the Brighton plant.
``But in the next couple of years, every new program [in North America and Europe] that I'm aware of is moving to plastic fuel tanks. We're in a good position for that business.''
The firm's investment included $1 million to set up its multilayer extrusion line. The five-layer equipment originally was installed at Denton, Texas, where Eagle-Picher had run its small fluid systems division before moving to Michigan in 1996.
Multilayer fuel and vapor lines have captured more than 85 percent of new business, Maly said. The multilayer lines feature outer shells of nylon 12 surrounding a thin wall of either polyvinylidene fluoride or more-expensive ethylene tetra fluoroethylene.
Although Eagle-Picher has yet to make multilayer lines, stringent hydrocarbon emissions requirements make the change imminent, Maly said. Competitors such as Bundy are expanding their multilayer hose production because of increased demand.
``It should be coming in the next six months,'' Maly said. ``We have a new program [with a supplier to a Big Three automaker] that we can't talk about yet.''
Corrugated vapor lines also show promise, Maly said. Compared with traditional rigid lines, the flexible lines fit well in the cramped, curved space near a fuel tank, Maly said.
The company has set up assembly equipment to attach two corrugated lines to a straight piece of tubing. That work is being performed for Troy, Mich.-based fuel tank supplier Solvay Automotive Inc., which is making the tanks for Chrysler Corp.'s new minivan models, Maly said.
Eagle-Picher also is making monolayer, corrugated tubing for Ford Motor Co.'s Visteon partsmaking unit — which Maly said is is shipping the parts to Hungary for European assembly — and straight tubing for Volkswagen AG's plant in Puebla, Mexico.
Eagle-Picher's new test facility, called ``the submarine'' by officials, includes a wall of stainless-steel, periscope-shaped tanks. The supplier invested more than $500,000 in the equipment, which began operating April 16 in an 8-by-20-foot trailer.
The division will test its extruded lines for resistance to gas permeation, bursting, impact and elongation.
Before tests can begin, fuel circulates through four 12-gallon fuel cells to simulate 100,000 miles driven at 40 miles per hour. The process, which preconditions the fuel, takes more than 2,000 hours.
After that, five tanks run the fuel through the lines to check for hydrocarbon permeation to the atmosphere. The fuel-containing lines are dropped — at temperatures below 60§ F — to verify impact resistance, then are put into a pressurized chamber to check for bursting.
New product designs submitted by automakers and fuel-tank suppliers will be tested at the center, according to Eagle-Picher sales and engineering manager Charles Cecil.
Bundy also believes that in-house testing is necessary. ``This means that a supplier has the required expertise in-house and can give an adequate response time," said Denny Soles, Bundy technology director.
With the additions, the firm expects to outgrow the Brighton plant by the year 2003 and move to a larger site, Maly said.
Sales at the Brighton facility and its sister European division, Eagle Picher Fluid Systems Ltd. of Market Harborough, England, should reach a combined $40 million by the year 2000 from about $30 million today, Maly said. The Brighton plant already has doubled employment to 72 in the past year.